Lead Pipes Must Be Removed Under EPA’s Proposed Water Rule, Finally Fulfilling Congress’ Mandate to Set Safe Water Protections

WASHINGTON – A new rule proposed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) today sets the stage for every lead water pipe in the nation to be replaced, with the vast majority expected to be removed in the next ten years. The Lead and Copper Rule Improvements will effectively end the practice of supplying drinking water to homes through toxic lead pipes that have threatened the health and well-being of families in all 50 states for more than a century. It is well-established by medical experts that there is no safe level of lead exposure. 

“In a moment when many of us feel overwhelmed by bad news, the EPA’s lead rule provides a ray of hope that we are approaching the day when every family can trust that the water from their kitchen tap is safe, regardless of how much money they have or their zip code. The EPA is doing what Congress charged it to do decades ago: getting the lead out of drinking water. Communities demanding safe water got the attention of President Biden, whose administration will finally remove every lead pipe from the ground,” said Erik D. Olson, senior strategic director for health at NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council). “But without mandatory requirements for water systems to pay the full cost of removing all lead pipes, history shows us that many water utilities will not take the actions needed to reduce lead levels for every household.” 

The EPA’s revised Lead and Copper Rule represents a key moment for the Biden Administration, which made eliminating lead pipes and delivering safe water a centerpiece of the President’s policy agenda with bipartisan support. Lead-contaminated drinking water has disproportionately burdened low-income communities of color like Flint, Michigan, and Newark, New Jersey, whose water crises made it impossible to ignore the reality of unequal access to safe water. Millions of people are at risk of harmful exposure to lead in water simply from living in one of the more than 9 million homes across the country served by a lead water pipe. 

Removing lead pipes in the next ten years is a key requirement in the EPA proposal to improve water safety under the Lead and Copper Rule. While the proposed rule text has not been released yet, based upon our best understanding of what EPA is proposing, crucial improvements in the Rule include: 

  1. Full replacement of lead pipes from the water main in the street to the house in 10 years (though apparently in a limited number of cities with especially high numbers of lead lines, extensions will be allowed). 
  2. A ban on the previously widespread water utility practice of partially replacing lead service lines. 
  3. Better lead testing requirements, so water utilities will have to test both the first draw water from the tap and the 5th liter of water coming from the tap. The latter represents water that has been sitting in the lead service line that may have high lead levels. This is likely to have a significant impact.  
  4. A requirement that utilities complete inventories of lead service lines by October 2024, regularly update their inventory, and verify what pipes of unknown material are made of. 
  5. A reduced “action level” for lead from the previous 15 parts per billion (ppb) to 10 ppb, a measure that should drive improved treatment to reduce corrosion that releases lead and copper into tap water. Also, in cases of repeated exceedances of the action level, it includes a requirement that utilities provide water filters for certain homes. 

In addition, while the proposed rule’s text is not yet available, the proposal is not without its flaws, which could threaten to delay access to safe water. Apparent weaknesses of the proposal include:  

  1. Water systems are not required to pay for the lead service line replacement, potentially leaving significant cost burdens on individual households, and making it more difficult to reach the 100% replacement rate required under the new rule. This raises environmental justice concerns because low-income homeowners often are unable to afford to pay for lead pipe removal, and landlords often refuse to do so, meaning that too often lower income people continue to drink water contaminated by lead pipes. 
  2. Some water utilities apparently will be allowed to get an extension for removing their lead pipes beyond the 10-year deadline. It is unclear how much longer these systems will have to pull out their lead pipes and how broad this exception will be. 
  3. Dropping the action level from 15 to 10 ppb is an improvement but is insufficient and still is less strict than the 5 ppb standards recommended by health experts and the governments in Canada and Europe.  
  4. Enforcement – even with an action level at 10 ppb – is expected to remain weak without a universal requirement to immediately electronically report test results and violations to EPA, since most lead violations are not reported to the agency. 
  5. No requirement to require utilities to comprehensively test for lead from fountains and drinking water sources in schools and childcare centers. The rule apparently leaves in place the current requirements that just five tests for lead be completed in each school only once, and just two tests be completed at each childcare center only once. This can result in misleading parents, children and staff about whether their water is safe, since lead levels vary enormously from tap to tap and from day to day. 
  6. While the agency for the first time quantified the health and economic benefits of reducing cardiovascular diseases and deaths from lead, the EPA apparently failed to quantify certain health and other benefits that would result from removing lead pipes. Doing so would reveal benefits that exceed costs by an order of magnitude or more, as is demonstrated in our recent study and the Harvard researchers’ published paper upon which our study is based. 

The History of EPA’s Rules for Lead in Tap Water  

The Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA), originally enacted nearly a half century ago in 1974, required EPA to set “interim” drinking water standards. In 1975, EPA set a 50 ppb interim Maximum Contaminant Level (MCL) for lead. Frustrated by EPA’s slow action, Congress amended the law in 1986 to require additional standards and told EPA to regularly review the adequacy of health protection provided by its decade-old “interim” standards and to strengthen them if feasible. The 1986 law also prohibited the new installation or sale of lead pipes for use in drinking water. In response, EPA issued the now-infamous “Lead and Copper Rule” (LCR) in 1991. The LCR was supposed to reduce the levels of lead in tap water in part by requiring the removal of lead service lines when 10 percent of tested taps in a water system exceeded the “lead action level” of 15 ppb.   

It became clear that the LCR was failing to protect the public from lead after numerous lead crises, such as in Washington DC in the early 2000’s and later in Flint and Newark. In 2016, Congress revised the SDWA, this time adding a grant program for replacement of lead service lines, especially targeting disadvantaged households. Seeing that this was insufficient, Congress again amended the law in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law in 2019 to strengthen the lead service line replacement grant program and provide an unprecedented $15 billion exclusively for replacement of these lead pipes. Thus, Congress has repeatedly sought to push EPA to strengthen its protections of the public from lead in tap water, and specifically from lead pipes, with only modest success due to the woefully inadequate LCR.    

On January 15, 2021, in one of its last official actions, the Trump administration issued what NRDC called a “weak and illegal” revision to the LCR that would allow continued widespread lead contamination of tap water.  EPA asserted at the time that the rule would modestly increase lead service line replacements. NRDC, the NAACP and frontline community groups represented by Earthjustice, and 10 states challenged the Trump administration rule as inadequate and unlawful. Ultimately EPA decided in December 2022 to no longer defend the Trump administration rule in court and promised a strengthened LCR by October 2024.  

Additional Resources

What to Look for in the New Lead and Copper Rule (Erik D. Olson blog, November 2023)

Lead on Tap: A Short History of the Failure to Fix One of America’s Worst Water Contamination Crises (Erik D. Olson blog, November 2023)

“Staggering” Health Benefits From Replacing Lead Water Pipes Could Save Nearly $1 Trillion from Avoided Health Impacts (Report, October 2023)

EPA’s Chance Is NOW to Finally Fix the Broken Lead & Copper Rule (Erik D. Olson blog, February 2023) 

NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council) is an international nonprofit environmental organization with more than 3 million members and online activists. Established in 1970, NRDC uses science, policy, law, and people power to confront the climate crisis, protect public health, and safeguard nature. NRDC has offices in New York City, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Bozeman, MT, Beijing and Delhi (an office of NRDC India Pvt. Ltd). Visit us at www.nrdc.org and follow us on Twitter @NRDC.   

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